Syrian Turkmens reappeared in the Syrian Civil War during the shootdown of a Russian warplane Nov. 24. Russia had been bombing cities, towns, and villages along the Syrian-Turkish border, many inhabited by Turkmen.
When the Turkish air force downed a Russian Su-24 warplane after it passed through Turkish territory, the pilot — Col. Oleg Peshkov — and the weapon systems officer ejected over Turkmen fighters, who shot Peshkov dead before he landed.
These fighters are Turkey’s closest Syrian allies.
The Turkmen have a long military history in Syria. They entered the Levant with the Seljuk Empire and the Sultanate of Rum, both of which overcame and succeeded Arab and Persian dynasties.
Living under competing Islamic empires during the Crusades, the Turkmen experienced more stability under the Ottoman Empire, which secured Aleppo and its countryside during the 1516 Battle of Marj Dabiq against the Mamluk Sultanate.
The Turkmen rulers switched from Arabs to Turks once again, and the Turkmen enjoyed this national relationship with Constantinople for several hundred years, settling throughout the countrysides of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idlib and Latakia. The Ottomans hoped to use Turkmen settlers from Central Asia as a bulwark against Arab tribesmen.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I. France ensured that Damascus — an Arab capital — ruled over the Turkmen, and decades of nationalist politicians oppressed and persecuted the Turkmen as they remained outside the Republic of Turkey’s borders.
Syrian president Hafez Al Assad and his son Bashar further subjected them to Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, banning Turkish writing and stealing Turkmen territory.
Syrian Turkmen reacted to the Syrian Civil War with their memories of oppression, forming the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement and the Syrian Turkmen National Bloc.
These factions have worked alongside Arab and Kurdish rebels, contributing a great deal of firepower to the Syrian opposition. “We’ve been fighting since 1963, first with our voices and, since the start of the revolution, with arms,” one Turkmen commander told AFP. “We want to overthrow Assad’s regime and set up a democracy in Syria, where all ethnic and religious groups can live together in peace.”
The Syrian Turkmen Brigades represent part of the Free Syrian Army, which continues to exist although it’s been badly weakened by factionalism and regionalism. Syrian Turkmen have also become more difficult to distinguish from other rebels — which is part of a deliberate strategy.
According to analyst Nicholas Heras writing at the Jamestown Foundation:
Syria’s Turkmen communities are active participants in the Syrian opposition and stand to benefit from this participation in any post-Assad Syrian state. The political and diplomatic support of the Turkish government, in the context of weakened Al Assad government control over many regions of the country, provides Syrian Turkmen opposition groups with a benefactor as they position themselves to participate in a potential post-Assad transition period. Syrian Turkmen leaders appear to be pursuing citizenship-based representation in a future Syrian government and thus far appear to be carefully seeking to legitimize their community’s status as “Syrians” in a diverse Syrian polity.
Turkey remains sympathetic to the Syrian Turkmen, feeling that history obliges Ankara to defend and protect them.
“Many Turks regard the Turkmen as kin, and the Turkish government has expressed a desire to protect so-called ‘outside Turks’ across the border in Syria,” Time reported. “Turkey also supports a broad range of other rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, which Ankara has opposed since the early days of the uprising.”
Turkey considers the Syrian Turkmen Brigades decisive in its fight against the Islamic State. “Turkmen are Turkey’s ethnic kin but the world should understand that there is a bigger issue at stake here,” a Turkish official told Reuters.
“We are extremely worried that the anti-Islamic State coalition is being weakened by these bombardments. How could a campaign against Islamic State be conducted by bombing these rebels which are actually battling Islamic State?”
Russian air strikes against Turkmen cities, towns and villages thus angered Turkey enough that it might challenge Russia on the battlefield.
“Turkish authorities see the Turkmen brigades not only as a strategic player in the fight against Assad, but also as an Ankara-friendly bulwark against the advance of the Islamic State militant group, as well as Syrian Kurds, whose main militia is deemed a terrorist organization by the Turks,” Ishaan Tharoor explained for The Washington Post.
To put it another way, the Turkish government may need the Turkmen as much as they need it.